Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Writing as an individual, rather than "For the Institution"

It's the reminder remainder of my lunch time as I write this. Taking a break before the workshop resumes.

I'm conducting a "Writing for Social Media"* workshop today. Have been conducting this for maybe three years or so. About eight runs so far.

The course covers aspects of writing for the Internet and social media -- blogs, a little bit of Facebook/ Twitter, an overview of planning vodcasts and podcasts. There's some technical information and techniques (e.g. what does it mean to "write concisely", "in a personal tone", "passive Vs active voice", differences in writing instructional posts Vs feature articles).

Participants go through writing activities, group discussions and class critiques (I always warn them to leave their egos at the door -- but it's not as hard horrible as it sounds).
NLBA Writing for Social Media workshop

I also try to get the class to discuss and think about what it means to be "social", as opposed to only "writing".

The hardest bit, from my perspective as a trainer, is in explaining what it means to "write from the heart". Or rather, convince the participants why it's important to do do.

In explaining about "writing from the heart", I still quote Shel's book: write with "Passion" and "Authority".

Participants also shared that it's about giving readers a glimpse into our personal viewpoints or work. E.g. how did we plan for this programme? What did participants tell us?

And about our feelings, e.g. what's my personal thoughts after facilitating a book discussion session? What new insights did I learn?

Technical skills are easier to master. But the ability to evoke emotions from the reader -- that's an art in itself.

Also, what one reader feels is emotive writing may come across as bland to another.

And I think in a work setting, few jobs require the employee to write with emotions. Couple that with the culture of librarianship being more of "behind the scenes" rather than being "front and centre", it's harder to get a library institution to share it's institutional knowledge, through its people-assets.

* The workshop details are not posted at the NLB Academy site, but you can email them to enquire.


  1. The "Writing for Social Media Workshop" you conducted is informative and educational, Ivan. Thanks for this helpful initiative for social media blog training.

    As you mentioned on this blog, [The hardest bit, from my perspective as a trainer, is in explaining what it means to "write from the heart"].

    Each blog is different with each own story from one's own heart.

    Happy blogging!

  2. Good point, James. "Write our own stories". That's a way to write from the heart.

  3. Ollie3:24 am

    Hey, Ivan. I am delighted to see that you're conducting writing workshops and obviously doing a pretty darn good job of it. As a former composition teacher, may I offer a few comments? Be careful about using expressions like, "Park your ego at the door." They are often shorthand for something much larger worth teaching. Took me a long time to realize that folks aren't born knowing the difference between negativity and constructive criticism. Fortunately, Singapore, with its many courtesy and other social skills programs is brilliant at inculcating constructive behaviours, understanding that social skills, too, must be taught. So, as part of your workshop, you might take a few minutes to ask your students how one goes about constructively giving someone else the "bad news." I always gave a few counterexamples which always got a few laughs and which thus helped to keep things light. "This stinks!" I might say by way of example and then ask, "How effective is this as constructive criticism? And would it be okay if other words were added? (The answer is, as constructive criticism, it stinks! BUT: how about, "This part stinks, I think, because of x, y, and z. If you do this, i think it can be saved. This other part, however, is wonderful! I wish that I had written it!" And always remember to give your students a chance to discuss before you jump in with an (not "the") answer since part of the goal is to get them to think and respond while you play moderator.

    The other problem specifically with "Park your ego at the door," is that it may introduce an unconscious contradiction that could lead to so-called writer's block. Here's the contradiction: first, you ask wannabe writers to park their egos at the door; but then you ask them to "write from the heart." Well, to write from the heart assumes a huge ego. It means writing passionately about what you yourself are intensely interested in. If you've "parked your ego at the door," it's not there for you when you need it to write. What I've found helpful is to remind young writers that whenever they write, they are writing TO someone. This is part of the writing situation along with purpose and occasion and context. Writing to someone means you have to take into account your audience and its interests and then use language that you think will make your interest interesting also to them. Let me end with a reference that you as an instructor might find helpful: Corbett's "Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student." Also, books my Andrea Lunsford (a world authority on rhetoric and composition, and my former rhetoric and composition teacher) should be helpful.

    Finally, let me end by saying XIN NIAN KUAI LE! And asking you to pass on my greetings to QQ. Take care. Ollie

  4. Hi Ollie, good suggestions! I agree with your point about the "leave your ego at the door" statement. Will consider your ideas, so that the intent is communicated more clearly. One thing though-- I don't think ego is necessary for "writing from the heart". To me, ego implies pride, sometimes at the expense of rationality.

  5. Ollie4:22 am

    Hey, Ivan. Thanks for taking the time to respond to my comment. I'm glad you've found some of my remarks useful. As usual you've stirred me up, got me thinking about one or two relevant other things, but first to address your excellent point about ego. You might find useful Jean Piaget's notion of "egocentricity." Now, Monsieur Piaget was a French-Swiss psychologist famous for, among other things, his work with children and his term does not refer to the everyday colloquial sense of "conceit," "pride," "selfishness"; rather, it has more to do with the child's not yet having acquired a sense of otherness, of other people and their needs. This is also true to some extent of young and/or basic writers; they haven't yet developed a sense of audience. Once they do, finding their voice becomes easier because it will be constrained by the knowledge of who they're writing to/for. Link this audience awareness with purpose and occasion, and the writing becomes more fluent. But, man, it takes work to get to this point: not only research about one's topic, but also notes on one's purpose and characteristics of one's likely audience. This research and these notes become part of what is called prewriting.

    But now on to the other thing that's been tickling my mind: passion. Forget about passion, especially for blog writing. It'll be there without having to think about it, without having to work it up or generate it. And it's not dependable. Impossible to depend upon/sustain passion for the day-in, day-out everyday writing of a blog. But what to rely on instead? Again, a writer can look to her audience and gradually make the shift from writing-for-self to writing-for-other; in short, the writer views herself as an entertainer. NOW the writing gets fun because you see yourself as a performer for others and you begin as you write to think of what will be fun for your reader. Doing this is almost always certain to attract a response. Also, it gets you to thinking about various tactics to attract readers, lure them into discussing, replying in writing themselves. So, one tactic that eventually occurs to the budding blog writer is: to take that side of an issue that they think will be highly controversial, highly unpopular with their audience, even though they probably don't agree with that side of the issue themselves; publish it - and then stand back, get out of the way, and let the doo-doo fly! The comments more often than not will come roaring in - and the writer can take great pleasure in having generated so much thought and discussion. And can always come back and say, "Thanks for all your comments. After reading them, I've altered my view. Thanks for helping me see the light on this one." This empowers your audience and compliments them, and - guess what? - gets them to come back for more!

    Next, a little more on "writing from the heart." Forget this, too. It, too, will be there if a person is writing-for-other. What's more important is developing a voice, a distinct writing personality that, once the writer has mastered language, will enable her to write as if she were speaking onto the text. QQ was brilliant at this - which is why when she wrote in a comment to one of your blog entries, I knew it was her after one and a half sentences. Having read and reread her blog, I'd come to recognize her distinct voice.

    Please do check out the Corbett book. It details how writers write for different audiences and occasions and purposes, and presents many "tricks of the trade." And, Ivan, if you have any questions or concerns that you'd like to discuss more privately, you can probably still get my e-mail address off my library card. Should still be on file. QQ might be able to help you here, too.

    All the best to you - and thanks for the great blog!

  6. Ollie4:32 am

    P.S. A good example of a blog successful in generating response is to be found in The Press Democrat (, the newspaper of my old hometown in California. The blog there is called the Cohn Zohn (google it) and is written by a Stanford PhD name of Lowell Cohn. The guy is a professional sportswriter/blogger and almost always succeeds in getting folks to reply - sometimes ferociously - to his blog and column comments. He's a character. Even if a person doesn't understand the sports teams he's talking about, one can study him for techniques, devices, tactics to use in attracting readers who keep coming back and commenting.

  7. Ollie/George6:21 am

    Assignment: BLOG POST ANALYSIS

    (Note to Instructor: This assignment assumes that you have had fairly extensive prior discussion with your students about the topics it addresses.)

    So-and-so is generally recognized with having created a highly-successful blog. But, like every blog creator, he cannot be successful all of the time and so some of his blog posts are bound to be more successful than others.

    For this assignment, please:

    First, write an extended definition of what you think constitutes a successful blog;

    Second, select what you believe is one of so-and-so's successful blog posts and in writing discuss what you believe makes it work (don't forget to look at readers' comments, if any);

    And third, select what you believe is one of so-and-so's less successful blog posts and in writing discuss in detail what you believe makes it fizzle ( and remember to look at readers' comments, if any, in this case, too).

  8. Ollie8:57 am

    I know, I know - I'm becoming a blog-hog. But you get that little hamster in my head running on his wheel, Ivan, and I can't seem to stop him. So please accept my apology and bear with me for this last - I promise! - comment.

    The hypothetical assignment I posted above you will, of course, realize represents merely a starting point. The places it might lead to are, however, intellectually exciting. E.g., an instructor (read: Mr. Chew) might next have students examine the relations between a particular blog post and the readers' comments it arouses to see, among other things, what exactly triggered the response and what the "triggers" reveal about the relationship between the particular blog poster and his/her readers. In short, wo de peng you, have students do discourse analysis. (For more on discourse analysis, including examples of same relevant to the Singaporean context, check out my ex-wife's book (how would you say "my ex-wife's book" in Mandarin - wo qian qi de shu?) which Big Library just happens to have; search author Anneliese Kramer-Dahl (now sub-dean at NIE)) Finally, after this work, and work on topics such as layout, formatting, typeface, a person might assign students to select a blog of their choice and write a description-exposition of the entire blog.

    Well, if you're not fed up with me now, you're certainly a better man than I am - which I don't doubt anyway.

    Thank you for your indulgence.

  9. Ollie/ George: too much of a good thing is bad. Chill man.

  10. Ollie/George11:10 am

    Of course you're right, Ivan. Sorry.


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